In April and May of 2010, I started this blog about my experiences as a victim of child sexual abuse by my parish pastor, a man we called “Monsignor,” and his criminal prosecution in the early 1990’s for which I was a witness. Up until then, I never, ever talked about it, for a lot of reasons: it’s a painful subject. I knew people whose abuse was more severe than mine, and I felt unentitled to the story. I hated what I remembered of myself at the time I began confronting my abuse and during the trial—sniveling, grasping for attention, crazy, out of control. Some of the time, I didn’t believe in my own memory. The therapist I was seeing at the time didn’t believe me. Whenever I tried to talk to her about it, she’d say things like, “What I am hearing from you now is more ‘poor me,’ and I don’t buy that.”
I had to get better all on my own, and my strategy for that was this:
1) Decide I was just not going to let this terrible thing in my past affect me in any way. I opted out. I made my own “Get Out of Psychopathology Free” card.
2) Shut the hell up.
But last spring, the story poured forth from me. It was during a time when a new chapter of what is known as “The Crisis in the Church” was exploding in the media. My eldest daughter had reached the age I had been. I needed to talk about it, and so I wrote. It was exhilarating. I connected with others who had been abused, I was writing again for the first time in years. The positive feedback flowed, the negative was minimal, and the creep factor was manageable (a bunch of people Googling “Hot Catholic Schoolgirls” and one very unpleasant exchange with someone who felt the need share with me the torment of being attracted to under-age girls). I felt powerful, unafraid, unashamed in a way I never had before in my life. Plus, it really was a hell of a story.
I decided to turn the story into a book—an account of a parish of good people who loved God and their faith and were betrayed in every way possible by a megalomaniacal monster, a man who controlled them, lied to them, stole from them, and did the worst to the least among them. I referred to it as “My Project.”
In the summer, I began an MFA program in Creative Nonfiction, with My Project as the subject of the required thesis manuscript. The program is “low-residency”—I spend a short time each semester doing in-person study and do the rest of the work remotely. The two-week residency at the beginning of August was a transformative experience. The faculty mentors and other students are as supportive as they are talented, and everyone I spoke with about My Project was enthusiastic. My mentor inscribed my copy of his latest book to me, “You have a powerful and important story to tell. I am proud to be working with you.” Our guest lecturer, an author and journalist whom I admire to the point of hero-worship, told me he was looking forward to reading it.
Back at home, I worked with energy and fervor. My writing was good, my mind was engaged. The research was fascinating and productive, but after a couple months, I needed to make a trip back to my home state to conduct interviews and comb through some libraries and archives. I scheduled interviews with fellow victims, former classmates, and their families. I had plans to meet up with my beloved eighth-grade teacher, Sister S., and a long-lost close friend from grade school.
But, as the trip approached, my drive seemed to evaporate. My confidence in myself and my ability to carry out the reporting and the writing of my story—despite every external reinforcement possible—faded. It was like waking from a dream where I held a precious jewel in my hands. I tried to grasp the jewel tighter, but it dissipated, slipping though my fingers as I awoke. I wrote, some, in fits and starts, a paragraph, sometimes a whole page, before stopping in disgust. I looked at the materials I had assembled, and it felt like someone else had put the books on my shelf, the papers in my files, the links on my Favorites list. It was gone. The courage and strength I needed to carry this work had vanished before I even truly got started.
The feeling was all too familiar, a mixture of humiliation and doubt that has dogged me ever since I was a little girl. This was not the first accomplishment it had scuttled, but it was by far the most painful. Despair dulled my thinking; I worked frantically but accomplished little. My panic over preparing for the approaching trip and meeting my school deadlines froze me. Finally, the turmoil in my brain gave way to physical illness. The cold that was going around just kept getting worse until one late night I found myself sitting on my sofa at with a 103° fever, sewing one of my kids’ Halloween costumes, my assigned reading on my knee. I finished the costumes, but could not face My Project. It was shit. I was shit, and now everyone I cared about or admired would know. I canceled my trip. I got extensions on my work. I got on antibiotics. And, yes, I got my ass to my shrink.
As it turns out, you can no more decide to be unaffected by a major trauma in your childhood than you can decide to be unaffected by a flu virus. And you can no more expect to ignore the psychic fall-out from digging into police reports and news coverage of a crime committed against yourself than you can ignore a sinus infection. As much as I hate to cede this ground, I must admit that what Monsignor did to me, my family, and my classmates did wound me, gravely. And because I never properly treated that wound, trying to shape it into art just made it septic. If I continue, I will fail. Literally so, because I have tied my academic success to this endeavor.
So, I’m doing what I should have done all along. I’m taking the Monsignor mess to a skilled and ethical clinician, and writing about something much less personally haunting for my Masters thesis. I have every intention of returning to My Project at a later time, because—along with my blog readers and my mentor and my classmates and the acclaimed journalist guest lecturer—I was right all along. It is a good story. And I am a good writer. The jewel from my dream is real. I simply have to sort my therapeutic work from my school work so I can get them both completed.
My new project is interesting and engaging and—unlike the old one—FUN. The research is historical, any archives I must travel to are in San Francisco. Ironically, it too is about religion and sexual oppression. But it’s also about rescue and redemption. And it has bordellos, gold-rushes, tongs wars, a ruthless dowager empress, a diaspora, opium, footbinding, the invention of the peep show, earthquakes, pogroms, syphilis, bubonic plague, railroad magnates, corruption, mayem, madness, pimps, the Cigar Rollers’ Union, highbinders, clansmen, Klansmen, madams, more opium, and well-meaning missionaries who aimed for social justice but ended up contributing to shamefully racist laws. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.
Thanks for listening. Things are better for me since I made this change. I mean, look at the books. Which would you rather spend the next two years immersed in? Yeah me too.
Selected bibliography for the new project
Selected bibiography from the old project
Please keep in touch. I’ll be around. I know so many people have reached out to me whom I never got back to. Please know it’s just because I was overwhelmed , not because I did not appreciate it. I did, so much. You touched me. You helped me. Thank you. Again and again. Thank you.